Law's poverty jm modiri

Conclusion: critical imaginings of alternative futures

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5 Conclusion: critical imaginings of alternative futures

The world suffers under a dictatorship of no alternatives. Although ideas all by themselves are powerless to overthrow this dictatorship we cannot overthrow it without ideas.134

Spurred on by an upsurge in scholarly interest on the relationship between law and poverty in the post-apartheid South African context, Sanele Sibanda ingeniously suggests that rather than thinking of poverty through rights discourse, as a question of rights violation, we should instead think of it as an index of the eventual success or failure of the project of post-apartheid constitutional transformation.135 In their intervention Danie Brand, Stephan de Beer, Isolde de Villiers and Karin van Marle have taken this sentiment further by arguing that discourses on poverty should eschew the language of "development", "relief" and "aid" and instead frame poverty in terms of justice, transformation and liberation.136 In both contributions the authors respond well to bell hooks' challenge to those interested in economic justice that they should "think against the grain" and seek out new ways to "end oppressive and exploitative hierarchies" in pursuit of a "world where we can all have enough to live fully and well".137 This concern with asserting the ideal, the possibility that the current order of things is patently unjust and should (and can) be changed against the widespread complacency of liberal democracy, the passivity of formal legal guarantees and the security of advanced capitalist life forms the underlying core spirit of my argument.

In this article I have endeavoured to conceptually/theoretically explore an alternative critical political approach to poverty that radically departs from legalist, technical, scientific and economist approaches. Following Young, Cornell and Butler, I have made the case for an understanding of poverty as a form of structural oppression whose mode of deprivation and denigration extends to both the "body" and the "heart" and whose fundamental modality is to expose the lives of poor people to conditions of precarity and destitution, thereby rendering them unreal. I also considered, through Brown, how this new understanding of poverty raises critical questions about the utility, impact and emancipatory force of rights. It goes without saying that the inverse of poverty as oppression would be freedom, both in the sense of liberating people from the harsh conditions of poverty and its resultant depredations but also in the sense of a world and social order free of poverty. And it was here that a serious tension could be discerned between rights as a legal remedy for the political problem of poverty and a more ambitious emancipatory project: whereas rights seek remedies and services from power (the State, the courts, the media, the wealthy, international human rights agencies, NGOs, sympathetic citizens), true emancipation would require claiming and sharing that power; and whereas rights offer protections, true emancipation would seek collective freedom.

Michel Foucault's critical insight that freedom is a practice rather than a final achievement or legal guarantee, and that the "liberty of men is never assured by the institutions and laws that are intended to guarantee them"138 provoked the explicit focus on the ways in which race still permeates and shapes the reality of poverty in South Africa. The continuation and intensification of poverty and inequality along the axis of race needs to be understood in the context of the failures and "misadventures" of the post-1994 project of reconstruction and nation-building, and specifically the failure to place racial justice, restitution, reparation(s) and redistribution at the heart of the legal and political transformation of the nation.139 Moreover, the structural inertia of the inequalities, disadvantages and exclusions generated by almost four centuries of successive systems of white supremacist terror must be attributed as well to the national government's embrace of a global neoliberal capitalist economic framework.140 Because of this, the Constitution's promise of dignity, equality and freedom for all as well as any legal progress made in the area of equality, socio-economic rights and access to justice are negated and rendered facile and irrelevant in the face of an unaccountable economic system that has generated huge inequalities while also deepening and leaving those of the past intact. For this reason, it is no exaggeration to say that poverty eradication is inseparable from the realisation of racial justice, which in turn is inseparable from the abolition of capitalism.

Indeed, it will not be possible to truly change the reality and situation of the oppressed without changing the world itself.141 Current approaches focused on alleviating and reducing poverty and on providing "basic" needs and services to "the poor" cannot deliver such change; they cannot dismantle the ever-expanding boundaries between rich and poor. In conceiving of poverty eradication as a project of changing the world, and in considering the role of law and rights in this project, we should always heed the limits of law, its incapacity and violence, and ultimately its own "poverty". Rather than pursuing justice solely through legal and rights-centred institutions and discourses, we must be prepared to "defatalize the present" and work towards the creation of radical alternatives.142

Whether through a door needing to be opened or a beckoning window already raised, what would happen if you entered? What would be on the other side? What on earth would it be? What on earth?143

… Perhaps paradise.144



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* Joel M Modiri. LLB (UP). Lecturer, School of Law, University of the Witwatersrand. E-mail: This article is based on parts of the research conducted as part of my LLM studies at the University of Pretoria. I would like to thank my supervisor Karin van Marle for her support and ongoing critical engagement. Danie Brand, Terblanche Delport and Linda (Jansen van Rensburg) Stewart read an earlier version of this paper and offered extensive and trenchant comments. Many of the thoughts shared in this paper also grow out of conversations, provocations and reflections with colleagues - Tshepo Madlingozi, Isolde De Villers, Anton Kok, Rantsho Moraka, Sanele Sibanda, Yvonne Jooste, Cathi Albertyn, Ulrike Kistner and Ndumiso Dladla - and I should like to thank them as well. All errors and shortcomings are undoubtedly my own.

1 Lawrence 1995 Stan L Rev 820.

2 Emeritus Justice Zak Yacoob cited in SAPA 2013

3 For a sample of the literature see: Mubangizi and Mubangizi 2005 Dev South Afr 277; Van der Walt Theories of Social and Economic Justice; Olivier and Jansen van Rensburg "South African Poverty Law" 107-141; Bilchitz Poverty and Fundamental Rights; Quinot and Liebenberg Law and Poverty; Dugard "Courts and Structural Poverty" 293-328; Thapanyane "You Can't Eat the Constitution"; Langford et al Socio-Economic Rights.

4 See Cornell and Panfilio Symbolic Forms 125-149.

5 Modiri 2012 SA Public Law 256.

6 Throughout this paper I shall use the phrases "the poor", "impoverished people", "people living in poverty" and "people living under poverty" interchangeably. I do so in part to indicate my own discomfort, ambivalence and anxiety with acts of naming or speaking for those living under conditions of poverty as well as to register my acknowledgement that all codifications and deployments of group identity run the risk of reifying that identity and entrenching woundedness and victimisation as fundamental to that identity. That said, I take it from thinkers such as Linda Martin Alcoff, Charles Mills and William Connolly that our identities are not completely voluntary. Due to the materiality of class, race and gender, for instance, as well as the shared - though not necessarily exactly similar - experience of a common reality of subordination and suffering engendered by poverty, it makes sense to speak of "the poor" even if this is always attached to a concession that all identities are internally homogenous and complicated. I prefer "people living in/under poverty" over "the poor" (which I will mostly place in inverted commas when used) because it allows a distance between the people and the poverty in a way that does not naturalise or reify poverty as an identity when it is more appropriately an injury to one's Be-ing in the world. My thanks to the one reviewer who pointed this out and pressed me to make this dilemma more transparent.

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